Patrick Mulcahy remembers Jean-Luc Godard
Twenty-four hours after hearing that the French film director Jean-Luc Godard (3rd December 1930 to 13th September 2022) had died, I found myself in an Istanbul hotel room watching the last half-hour of his 1963 film, Le Mepris, dubbed into German. I was captivated by the usual Godardian tropes – a camera panning away from its subject, music interrupted by silence as if the director were playing with the volume control. Over the last decade, I had considered Godard, along with Peter Greenaway, to be one of a number of autistic film directors who were high-functioning attention seekers simultaneously indifferent to the audience.
Godard enjoyed critical acclaim throughout his life and attracted acolytes – impenetrability helped. He did not, however, inspire directors to be like him; autistic film directors cater to their own delights. Godard liked the last word, usually ‘Fin’. With his 2017 film Redoubtable, about Godard’s romance with Anne Wiazemsky, director Michel Hazanavicius tried, weakly, to humanise him; but, as they say, got the big calls wrong. There was no hint of Godard’s autism. Hazanavicius’s film descended into pastiche. Calling Redoubtable “a stupid idea” but not preventing it from being made – even a bad biopic can contribute to the cult of a director – Godard was typically indifferent to it.
In parts of his life, notably the late 1960s and early 1970s, Godard appeared to embrace communism. I would not describe him as a leftist film director. He undoubtedly held financiers in contempt – his 1972 film Tout va Bien, featuring Jane Fonda, begins with a series of cheques being written – but he still met with them. He was keenly aware of the cult of personality – indeed, his cohort at the magazine Cahiers du Cinema helped cement the idea of director as auteur in the 1950s, which suited him rather well. He refused to venerate his contemporaries. He never sat on the jury of a competitive film festival, though he wasn’t shy about picking up prizes.
There is not one single Godard film that I can say I enjoyed from beginning to end, but there are sequences that have impact. Godard was nothing if not innovative. The jump cuts that feature in his debut feature, A bout de Souffle, are initially exhilarating. The energy they create dissipates. The traffic jam sequence in Weekend – an extended tracking shot of vehicles that have ground to a halt – is a thing of beauty until it ends with a car wreck. In Bande a part, Godard had a couple race through the Louvre – a sequence imitated in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and Roger Michell’s Le Weekend – as well as inspiring Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction with a jazzy dance number. Pleasure was not Godard’s prime concern, rather an occasional by-product of his artistry.
I first encountered Godard’s films in the early 1980s, soon after the release of his ‘second first film’, Slow Motion. I found them hard work. When Godard turned up in Prénom Carmen, I found him an amusing presence, but he was a director who made me think that my lack of appreciation was my fault. However, certain aspects of his work made me feel better about my ignorance, notably his use of actors. Aside from his then wife Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo, who appeared in three of his early films, and Jean-Pierre Leaud (Truffaut’s preferred alter ego), Godard never worked with an actor more than once, appearing to perceive them with contempt. Imagine a director on set who doesn’t see you but instead sees through you. This is how I imagine he viewed Jane Fonda, whose participation in Tout va Bien helped get it financed and who inspired his follow-up, Letter to Jane. Watching Le Mepris without the sound down low, I became all too aware of the positioning of actors within scenes as opposed to allowing them to develop character. Like Greenaway, Godard remained dismissive of narrative and characterisation.
The ’star’ of Godard’s early work was undoubtedly the cinematographer Raoul Coutard, followed by editor Agnès Guillemot. Godard might not use the same actors repeatedly, but he could maintain a crew. Towards the end of his life, his work became a montage of arguments. His 2010 film Film Socialisme is a set of spoken texts. He is fond of an epigram. “When shit is worth money, the poor won’t have arseholes,” is the only line I recall from Prénom Carmen. It is a quote from Henry Miller. There is a sequence in Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness that channels this love of quotation.
To categorise Godard as an autistic film director is not to denigrate his body of work but rather a way to better understand its creator – driven by patterns of unpleasure – and the effect of his films on an audience. Godard undertook numerous adaptations only to show an indifference to the source material. He is not a director who validated others. My final impression of him is of his no-show in Agnes Varda and JR’s 2017 documentary Faces Places. The two filmmakers visit Godard’s home only for Jean-Luc to absent himself. Godard was indifferent to the end.